Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Wide World

We are starting to get under the blubber of Moby Dick, and it has become clear to me that one issue in reading, as often with a book over 150 years old but perhaps in particular with Moby Dick, is understanding the context of the book and some of the current or recent historical events that the book references.

Melville comments generously on current events. One of my new favorites, for example, relates to the "Fast Fish, Loose Fish" discussion later in the book, in Chapter 89 (I know, we aren't there yet, but this is foreshadowing!). In this Chapter, Melville talks about the process of capturing fish that may have been injured by another boat but are untethered, and outlines the rather broad rules among whalers as to when a fish is "fair game". If you go back and look in the set of quotes in the extracts, and find the corresponding quote for this discussion (since, thanks to Murr, we know that these quotes are in the same order as the chapters), it is "Spain -- a great whale stranded on the shores of Europe. Edmund Burke (somewhere)." Ah, Spain, circa 1850 - it really did not have a very stable government, and looked ripe for the plucking! Someone who knows Burke better can give us detail on why the attribution is to Burke. He makes similar comments about Britain's relationship with India and the United States' to Mexico in the same chapter.

For today's reader, many of these references inevitably go by the wayside, and because Melville looks at almost every issue from many angles, few of these points are essential to understanding the core of the book. But, with some background, placing one's self a bit more carefully in the precise time frame, the book is much richer.

So, what was going on in the world at 1850 and 1851 proceeded, as Melville wrote this book?
In the United States: Zachary Taylor is signing the Missouri compromise, just after the Mexican-American war significantly expanded the country; battles over the extent to which slavery will spread internally are heightening. The Gold Rush has just swelled westward movement and is changing a lot of shipping patterns; railroads cover the east, especially the northeast, but cross-continent railroads are just a dream. The Seneca Falls Convention has just occurred and women's rights are just beginning to be talked of more broadly. The South is solidly slave, with a still expanding plantation economy feeding mills in New England and England. Immigration has just undergone the first great wave of the 19th century, with Irish immigration in particular during the years of and following the potato famine.

In American literature this is a time of great interest: Emerson and Thoreau, the great Transcendentalist writers, are pominent; while Emerson has written much of his finest work, Thoreau's Walden is still a few years in the future (1855). Whitman is well-known, but has not yet written Leaves of Grass (1855). Longfellow's Evangeline has been written, but Hiawatha (1847), like Leaves of Grass and Walden, is still four years away. Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850) and House of the Seven Gables (1851) are being written. Dana and Melville are both writing furiously and corresponding with each other. Poe is dead, we think (1849).

In the broader world, the revolutions of 1848 in Europe are over and reaction has generally set in. Darwin has published the Voyages of the Beagle (1839) but not the Origin of the Species (1859). The British Raj has not yet risen in India, though the British have the upper hand in rather intense court politics there. In China, the Taiping Rebellion has just begun. The Atlantic Slave trade has been formally abolished for more than a generation, and the rush to colonization in Africa had not yet begun. Nicholas I is championing autocracy in Russia, but in the Austro-Hungarian empire, the core of the 1848 revolutions, Metternich is in exile and the counterrevolution is tenuous. While the Turkish empire has caught a rather bad cold in Greece, which may be starting to spread, there is still thought that constitutional reforms and modernization may prove a cure. The Prussians are consolidating increasing amounts of German territory.

In literature and philsophy, the great Germans - Goethe, Kant, Hegel, the Schlegels, Holderlein, Hesse, even Hoffman, are all dead, though some lesser lights are still running around. But the great German minds are adored all over and seem well-known to Melville. Dickens is not only the height of British culture, but he has even deigned to visit America to spread the word and close the sales. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have captured fancies in the UK (and their genre is attracting enough attention with Melville, who owned Jane Eyre, that he will devote Pierre to spoofing them). Like the great German philosphers, the Great British ones have seen fit to die, including Locke, Burke and Hume, all long dead but still read widely. Authors that appear heavily in Melville's library include Charles Lamb and Thomas Carlyle, and you will see each of them make their appearances.

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